Reasons to Buy Organic: Let Us Count the Ways

, sr. scientist emeritus, Food & Environment | September 12, 2012, 5:31 pm EDT
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No more peaches, no more blackberries! As my colleague, Jeff O’Hara, and I pore over the list of fruits and vegetables coming in our shared community supported agriculture (CSA) delivery, we are facing the sad fact of seasonal eating. Seasons end. Yes, we will still get tomatoes and butternut squash—but oh what a summer this has been for berries and peaches.

My colleague Jeff O’Hara with our CSA share.

The Tuesday afternoon arrival of bags of organic fruits and vegetables has turned out to be a highlight of the summer for Jeff and me. Although not certified, our farmer employs the same practices that make organic produce a healthy choice and delivers them fresh from field right to our downtown DC office.

Of course, like most enthusiastic consumers of organic food, Jeff and I have reasons besides taste and freshness for choosing it. For a start, we both value the best-known features of organic agriculture: it prohibits antibiotics and synthetic pesticides.

News reports on a study from Stanford

So what do I make of a recent, widely reported story on National Public Radio saying that a new study by Stanford University scientists means that there is “hardly any evidence at all that organic food is healthier” and implies that Jeff and I might have been duped?

As a scientist, I am pleased to see a major meta-analysis (a study of studies) on the nutritional and safety aspects of organic food, but I found the interpretation by the authors of the study and news media disconcerting—and surprising.

The Stanford analysis confirmed that in comparison with conventional food, organic food has significantly lower pesticide levels, lower multidrug-resistant bacteria levels, and higher beneficial fat levels. In my book, that’s a pretty good case that organic food is healthier.

The study failed to find higher level of vitamins and other nutrients in organic food, however, and somehow in the minds of reporters and opinion columnists the evidence on vitamins trumped the evidence on antibiotics and pesticides. From a scientific standpoint, that doesn’t make sense. Nutrition isn’t the only health benefit that matters.

I also found the media coverage misleading in that it seemed to treat this study as as a final answer to the questions about organic agriculture rather than what it is: a first approach to those answers.

The Stanford paper demonstrates the challenge of comparing organic and conventional food production systems. It looks at hundreds of studies on different kinds of foods grown in different ways here and in Europe.  The studies involve a bewildering number of factors: What constitutes “organic?” Were the vegetables similarly ripe? Was the milk pasteurized or raw? Was the milk produced in the summer or the winter?

The issue’s complexity means that scientists will have to conduct many more studies, over much longer time periods, and under many different kinds of conditions, to reach broad conclusions about the impacts and value of organic agriculture.

The 237 studies that met the criteria for the Stanford paper are just the beginning of what’s needed to settle the question of the broad impacts of organic agriculture. The fact that the paper identified only five studies that evaluated people who consumed a predominately organic diet, rather than single foods, and found no studies that examined pesticide levels in adults shows how far science has to go.

What should consumers think?

Should Americans who eat organic food feel duped based on this study? Absolutely not.

The simple fact that organic food is produced without antibiotics and pesticides is enough to justify their buying it.

As my share-partner, Jeff, an economist, put it, “’No pesticides and no antibiotics’ is good enough for me. I’ll let the science catch up on other health benefits.” He calls it the precautionary principle on a plate.

This is a great reason to prefer organic but as discussed below there are other reasons, also supported by science. And, of course, scientists will continue to study these systems. UCS welcomes this research but cautions that consumers don’t need to wait for the results of more studies to feel good about their decisions to support and purchase organic.

Shortcomings of the Stanford study

The Stanford study’s interpretation of its findings has some major shortcomings.

The study confirmed that organic foods have low levels of pesticides but disparaged the finding because the pesticide levels in conventional food meet federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards. The suggestion that EPA standards represent acceptable levels of pesticides in food is troublesome. EPA standards are at best moving targets that tend to lag behind the advancing edge of new science (for example, the ramifications of pesticides as endocrine disruptors.) Some recent science compiled discussed by Dr. Charles Benbrook not cited by the Stanford study presents strong evidence that pesticides at dietary levels can adversely affect children. We need much more information to fully understand the role of pesticides in our food and environment. In the meantime, minimizing pesticides in food is the cautious and responsible course to take.

The Stanford study also confirmed that organic products have lower levels of multidrug-resistant bacteria than conventional ones. That supports the conclusion that, in addition to reducing one’s personal risk of acquiring drug-resistant infections, organic production helps address the public health threat posed by the erosion of our medical arsenal as a result of antibiotic resistance.

Regardless, the Stanford study dismissed the public health contribution of organic by minimizing the contribution of animal use of antibiotics to the resistance crisis. Contrary to the paper—which relied on an out-of-date 2001 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture—the existing science on this issue is conclusive: Massive use of antibiotics in animal agriculture is a significant contributor to the loss of efficacy of human use drugs. Food animal systems that can completely avoid antibiotic use are a major boon to public health.

Other benefits of organic agriculture

Stories on the Stanford study tended to skip over benefits not covered in the paper, although those benefits account for much of the enthusiasm for organic food.

Organic practices provide habitat for such beneficial organisms as pollinators and provide food animals substantially better lives. Organic producers have no need for antibiotics because animals fed the right food (grass in the case of cows), and provided low-stress living conditions, rarely get sick.

Organic systems can also reduce emissions of active nitrogen and reduce coastal ecosystem degradation. Because they rely on a diversity of crops, organic farms are resilient to environmental stress. The high levels of soil organic matter encouraged by organic practices enables soil to hold water and resist drought.

UCS is interested in all these issues and urges more science to expand our understanding of agriculture, health and the environment.

But there is no need to wait for these studies. Jeff and I—and consumers across the county—already have plenty of reasons to prefer organic food.

Now Jeff and I are going to divvy up our bag of beautiful CSA vegetables.

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  • Greg Peterson

    I take no issue with people who wish to “go organic,” and enjoy several organic foods myself–I prefer the organic pears and avacadoes in my grocery store to the convetional ones, for example, and I prefer grass-fed organic bison in my chili recipe. But I am not committed to organics, and the truth is, eating organic is very much a luxury. If all farming were organic-style farming, humanity would undergo widespread starvation. Much as I deplore factory farming, until we get population under control, organic farming will be the preserve of elites rather than a general solution to food security.

  • I don’t think anyone has made this point for eating organic food; it tastes better.

  • Frenchie

    You state organic farmers use no antibiotics because their animals rarely get sick. But on those rare occasions when they do get sick what happens? Are they left to suffer without effective medical attention? I’ve heard they are pumped full of antibiotics and dumped into convention foods. No one seems to be able to tell us what really happens and how inhumane the treatment of organic animals really is.

    Also the Stanford study found pesticide residues in about 7% of organic produce. How the heck does that happen? How can I be absolutely certain organic food I pay a premium for is absolutely free of pesticide? Not just 9 chances out of 10 it’s OK to eat.

    • Under the organic rules, farmers are REQUIRED to treat sick animals but nevertheless prohibited from selling them as organic. Farmers can sell treated animals into the conventional food system, but they lose their organic premium.

      The organic rules encourage farmers to keep animals as healthy as possible but don’t allow animals to suffer if they do get a disease.

      It is not accurate to portray therapeutic treatment as “pumping” animals full of antibiotics. Therapeutic treatments as usually short-term, a matter of days or weeks. By contrast antibiotics used for growth promotion and routine disease prevention are often given to cattle and swine for months. Many animals in conventional agriculture are treated with antibiotics every day of their lives.

      I would not put much stock in a single number from the study (that one seems high to me), but is not surprising that some small percentage of organic produce would contain some pesticides. Just watch a crop duster at work on a windy day. You are right that organic consumers would prefer absolutely no pesticides.
      Organic farmers and with their certifiers work hard to meet that expectation.

  • Sacha

    wonderful and important article! but your title is really an intellectual relict tied to the problematic economic heritage. You’re already PRACTICING CSA garden SHARE, but like most of us, when talking about it, all other words about access to some good (here: organic food) and fall out of mind and we come back to the word “BUYING” it..
    I think the title really should read ‘REASONS to GET/GROW/SHARE/IMPROVE ACCESS TO etc. ORGANIC’.
    we can’t afford staying mere passive consumers. it’s time to link production and consumption, ie. to take some forms of responsibility (via own production, fascilitation, activism etc) for what we end up consuming and thus increasingly become, as it’s called in the transition town initiatives: PROSUMERS..

  • as

    The article doesn’t seem to mention that another benefit of organic is the lack of added hormones. This the main reason I have chosen to incorporate as much organic food into my family’ s diet as possible. No one knows the long term consequences of added hormones to developing children or the adults for that matter.

    • Margaret Mellon

      Good point. But it important to note that it only applies to cattle and sheep. The U.S. Department of Agriculture prohibits the use of hormones
      in swine and poulty.

  • it’s so amazing to me that these studies are needed to establish the validity of eating organically. Just look at the onslaught of disease since the advent of all of the chemical and genetic interventions. Americans are declining in health. I read an article within the past couple of months (wish I could recall where,) which stated that the generation that is being born today is the first generation not expected to outlive their parents generation. What does this say for our collective health. These statistics aren’t nearly so prevalent in some European countries where, by the way, they refuse to import American produce because it doesn’t meet their standards. This is about common sense. anyone can create a study that supports their agenda. Let’s look at the facts of life today and yesterday and compare the effects with our own intelligent minds. it’s not rocket science as they say. Don;t pollute your body and live a long and healthy life…pretty simple

  • VC

    It’s interesting that this “study of studies” reviewed studies as far back as 1966, as evidenced by the actual article in the Annals of Internal Medicine.( Although it doesn’t specifically state which studies were used for their meta-analysis, I’d have to believe that the means by which conventional produce was grown in 1966 is much different than the way conventional produce is grown today. How can any reliable conclusion be made without more current, realistic data?

    • Margaret Mellon

      Interesting observation.
      Another dimension of the complexity of the question at issue here. What is done in both conventional and organic agriculture changes over time.